My boss is very stylish with his hair graying at 47years of age, still being the most eligible gentleman in our office. Often I accompany him on his golf sessions. One such Sunday morning as I watched him strike a perfect hole, my boss asked me “Coming along to Ranthambore with me?” I was just taken aback. Firstly by the abrupt invitation and secondly by the fact that I would be travelling with him. “Err.” I just started when he said, “Shantanu, never ever hesitate when you take a decision. Or even if you do, never let the other person know you are hesitating.” “Yes, Kumar” I said springing to attention.

So it was not long before I found myself in the spacious Mercedes with Kumar’s family en route to Ranthambore. My boss’s family – a very stylish wife and two impish kids of 16 and 8 years. I looked forward to an exciting trip.

As we reached the station, Kumar thrust a book and asked me to read the first two pages. Dutifully I opened and read the information on Ranthambore National Park. Supposed to be amongst the biggest Indian parks, and located in the district of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, this was a perfect wildlife tourist spot. Flanked by the Aravallis and the Vindhyas, the 500sq km park became a wildlife sanctuary in 1957. In the year 1974, it got under the “Project Tiger”. In 1981, it was declared a National Park. Today it is a park with many water bodies, and the park is more known for its tigers and there have been incidents of it being seen in daytime too.

“Yes October to May is the right time to visit, Shantanu.” Kumar added and I suddenly realized he had been keenly watching me while I was reading. “Sad that this park is so good and today has become a victim of poaching.”

“Uncle, have you taken your camera?” Jeev, Kumar’s 8 year old son asked, his lovely marble eyes questioning me. “Heh heh,” I said my tense muscles relaxing on seeing his innocent look, and showed him my camera proudly.

“It’s a wildlife lover’s paradise.” Sonia, Kumar’s wife added passing a bar of chocolate for me to munch on. “We could always fly to Jaipur, but Kumar insists on taking the kids by train. Just for the sheer fun of it.”

“YES! And we are going to reach the station in the middle of the night.” Said Eshan Kumar’s elder son.

I looked at Sonia quizzically, she smiled and said that Jodhpur Express that we were travelling would reach only at 12.45 in the night. Jaipur is around 132km from Ranthambore.

Jaipur station looked resplendent even at the dead of night. After a tiring but enjoyable 2 night journey we were finally at Jaipur. The children had regaled me all through the journey and I was quite comfortable with Kumar now and was admiring the way he blended being a professional as well as a family man. We stayed over at a hotel booked for us. Sonia was an efficient travel administrator. Till now, everything was working to perfection.

The next morning we went for a jeep safari to the Ranthambore National Park. The hotel we stayed over had this facility. This five hour ride took us through the park and we could have the best views of the flora and the fauna here. As we approached the park we saw this board put up which detailed us when to visit the park etc. It said that the park was open from October 1 to October 31 from 7 in the morning to 10.30 in the morning and then again from 2.30 in the afternoon to 6.00 in the evening. It then reopened in the month of November till end January and then from April to mid May and from mid may to end of June.

My friend had told me that the clothes we wear depends on the season we visit the park. Cotton during summer with cap and glasses and warmer clothes in the winter season. The early morning jeep ride that we were in was very chilly and I thanked myself for having sneaked in that sweatshirt, gloves and muffler at the last minute. “Oops!” I thought, as I saw my cell phone. I realized I was out of range, maybe because of the dense forests. As the jeep sped past we started seeing a lot of fauna already. We had a person Champak with us who was good at identifying the flora and the fauna. After a couple of hours Eshan and Jeev had filled their notebooks with the birds they saw.

“Graylag Goose, Indian hornbill, Snipes, Flamingos” counted Jeev with his small grubby fingers, “so many we saw, papa.!” Kumar just smiled and looked at the two huddled over a notebook. “And what other names, Eshan?” Eshan said grabbing the notebook from his younger brother “ Padam Talao, Great Crested Grebe, Shrikes, Sparrows.” “I want to say too,!” screamed Jeev and in the mild tussle the page tore with each piece in their hands, “WAaaaaaaaaaah!” Jeev wailed and Sonia just had enough and told them to cut the discussion and that ended the bird list review for us !

We went further and I was keeping my fingers crossed that I would see a tiger. They say that if you don’t see a tiger after coming to Ranthambore, then you are mighty unlucky. And I didn’t want to be unlucky.

“Hey! There’s a sloth bear, look!” Sonia said in a shrill voice. We all looked. Champak also showed us some Nilgai, jungle cats, chinkara, Indian fox, the Mole rat, porcupines. The season being the right time, we were able to considerable see many wild animals. That is the beauty of a National Park. We can see the animals freely roaming around. I saw a hedgehog scurrying across the path. The Mongoose! Oh how it looked so cunning and majestic. Then off course the five striped palm squirrels, the vampires, and best of all the bats. There were some water bodies in and around the area. These had the common frog and toad. Though we are used to seeing them, normally it was fun to see them in the jeep safari.

“Look Mamma, Turtles,!” shrieked Jeev. We hushed him as we are not supposed to make noise there. We not only saw turtles, but Champak also showed us lizards and desert monitors too. A Chamaeleon scurried along and we also saw the Russel’s viper. We wanted to see the North Indian Flap Shelled Turtles, but couldn’t see.

With the lovely deciduous forests around, our jeep safari went through the imli, mango, babul, banyan trees that covered the entire area completely. The tree known as the flame of the forest or the Chila, the Dhok, Khajur and Khair were other common trees that Champak pointed out to us. He said that Dhok formed most of the trees.

The next morning Kumar decided to set out to spot tigers. The kids and Sonia were relaxing in the hotel. We left early morning and Champak came with us. He was very excited as he had come to know that a tigress had been seen near a rock. As we reached the rock, we saw some more like us waiting to have a look at the tigress.

“Amba Devi ki aashirvad hogi “ he said with full confidence. I was surprised to see the beaming look on Champak’s face and wondered what “ashirvad” he was talking about. Kumar said that it was believed that the tigress was the vehicle of Goddess Amba, so the locals believed that if Amba Devi has given the aashirvad or the blessing, then we may spot a tigress.!

“Arrey!Udhar dekh!” ( Look there! ) in Hindi

“Aarey! Okhaney dekho!” ( Look there!) in Bengali

“Aarey ! Aiyyan joy!” ( Look there!) in Gujarati

“ Regardez – la!” ( Look there! ) in French

“Ayyaayo anga paaru!” ( Look there !) in Tamil

“Aga bayee, tikdey bug” ( Look there!) in Marathi.

Language no barrier, meaning no barrier, all that was left was excitement. All the commotions above indicating that the tigress was spotted. The tour guide there had already told us that we couldn’t make noise so all the hushed commotion settled and sure enough behind the rock we saw a glimpse of the yellow and black beauty. We waited for an hour more and we saw her tail swishing. Just then, a group of tourists came and the noise of the jeep perhaps scared here and she just lounged at the bush next to her. Whoa! What a beauty and what a majestic leap.! Indeed the tigress was royal looking. But then that’s it. She disappeared behind the bush and we again had to quietly wait and watch. Kumar took out his binoculars and saw the tigress moving ahead. As she moved ahead, the whole fleet of jeeps moved ahead. If she moved backwards, the fleet moved backwards, it was in tandem. The jeeps and the tigress seemed like they were in tango. My eyes were paining and my back aching. All my muscles and nerves were screaming to rest and relax. But the excitement in the atmosphere was palpable and we slowly edged to the spot where the drivers and guides felt the tigress would come out of. I kept my camera ready with backlight on, so that even in the dark denseness of the forest, I could capture a few good shots.

There was a gasp suddenly collectively in the group and I took my focus out of the trees above to see what it was. And the sight that I saw would remain forever etched in my memories. The sheer magnificence of the beauty that stood in front of us is just seen to be believed.

“Arrey, radio collar nahin hai. “ Champak said as we saw with bated breath and absolute silence, the phenomenon called the Indian tigress walking towards us. The radio collar Kumar explained to me was a collar tied around most tigresses to monitor scientifically their movements etc. A photo without this collar is a masterpiece for wildlife photographers and I was glad I got a tigress without a collar.

“Aa Sundari chey” the person next to me whispered to his wife in Gujarati. I looked at Kumar who said that it meant that this was Sundari.  Man! I thought, admiring my boss. He even knew the details of the tigress. No wonder he is a regular wildlife traveler. Just around 12 feet away and she just looked at us and it looked like she was saying “ Hey dude! What brings you here, huh?” That was the casual nature by which she moved on, wagging her tail, glancing all over and darting towards her path majestically but slowly. Her pace increased and we realized that she had found a prey to stalk and wesaw her with the deers there beside the lake in full view. What a sight and what an experience. The deers though gentle looking sensed the tiger approaching and even as the tigress created quite a kick in the mud near the lake banks, the deer just scooted off into the wilderness. I couldn’t believe that the whole thing got over in less than a minute. I captured everything in camera and just couldn’t get over the whole experience of having seen a wild tigress right there in front of my eyes.

As we made our way back, I saw some monkeys dangling from the branches, and heard Champak related the tale of how once he saw a leopard which is also a rare sight here. With many more stories to tell, he finally brought us to the hotel.

With Jeev and Eshan, clambering all over me to see what I had captured, with Sonia giving us a hot cup of cocoa, and with Kumar singing songs in the washroom, I was glad I had made it to the Ranthambore National Park.

Shonulog: “Wet, wild, free, live Ranthambore, live life.”